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Whitebark Pine and Global Warming

Andrew Wetzler

Posted December 10, 2008

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One thing I wanted to emphasize about NRDC’s Petition to protect whitebark pine under the Endangered Species Act is that, even putting aside the problems of blister rust, mountain pine beetles, and destructive fire management regimes, global warming itself will likely lead to a significant range contraction for the species.  Several published studies have predicted widespread declines in whitebark pine in response to climatic warming, but this picture of projected whitebark pine distribution from the present (“a”) to 2090 (“d”) illustrates the problem better than any abstract:

whitebark pine range contraction

Modeled bioclimate profile of whitebark pine, Pinus albicaulis, for the present (a) and predicted climate for decades 2030 (b), 2060 (c) and 2090 (d) under climate change scenario using an average of Hadley and CCC GCM scenarios of 1% per year increase GGa. Black indicates location of pixels receiving ≥ 50% proportion of votes in favor of being within the climate profile.

(Source: Warwell, M. V., G. E. Rehfeldt and N. L. Crookston. 2007. Modeling contemporary climate profiles of whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) and predicting responses to global warming. Proceedings of the conference Whitebark pine: a pacific coast perspective. USDA Forest Service R6-NR-FHP-2007-01.)

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Gail ZawackiDec 10 2008 06:11 PM

To Andrew Wexler,

Forgive me, In an excess of enthusiasm I am sending you a duplicate of my post to Sylvia Falons blog about the whitebark pine.

I am happy to see that NRDC seems to be more blunt than many of the happy, fuzzy, tree hugging organizations I have come across thus far.

Here's the duplicate:

I sent the following to the NYTimes. I doubt they will publish it. I include it here because I fear that in fact, your post is about a harbinger of even much worse to come. People are reluctant to make the connection between climate change and devastating environmental losses that are happening right now.

I have been writing to various environmental groups and so far found, to my surprise, that even those whose avowed mission is to fight climate change are strangely oblivious to some of the immediate and recognizable effects of global warming and pollution. It may be because so many dire predictions abound, from coral reef bleaching to melting glaciers, that compete for scientific study and press attention. However, many Americans have been so far insulated and thus, those threats are remote and not urgent enough to lead to widespread support for action.

I think there are two such effects, however, that should be of particular interest and ultimately inspire drastic remedial efforts, since they are likely to affect both ordinary citizens and policy makers in the USA with undeniably uncomfortable results.

First, I would mention this item which appeared only briefly on the, and has since been, as far as I can tell, completely ignored by the media:

The conclusions of that report are so awful, I almost thought it was satire. After looking up the author, and the newspaper that ran the story in England, it does appear to be serious, and terrifying.

But then, having a daughter who contracted cancer at age 24, I'm convinced there are chemicals in the environment which are highly toxic with predictably terrible results.

The other pressing concern that I feel may have an impact on climate policy derives from my own observations (and layman's research): I believe we are on the brink of total ecological collapse, at least here where I live, in western NJ - and other states in the region I have had occasion to visit recently, NY, PA, CT and RI.

It has been a daunting task to locate virtually anyone who expresses interest in the fact that ALL the trees are in "decline" - a technical, forestry term that seems somewhat benign but in reality means, THEY'RE DYING. Within the next few years, I don't expect there to be a tree left alive in my area. In the western US, the boring beetle is being blamed for the widespread decimation of forests, and too rarely is climate change cited as the underlying condition. In this part of the Eastern Seaboard, it's pretty obvious that there must be a more universal cause, because whether conifer or deciduous, old or young, the decline is ubiquitous, impacts across all species, and cannot be attributable to any one pathogen.

In hindsight, since I have lived in the same wooded area for almost 30 years, I can see where this decline began gradually at least a decade ago. But I assumed it was due to individual, species-specific blights, and did my bit, planting hundreds of trees. This past year however, it has become painfully clear to me that there is a decline, and it is accelerating at a truly astonishing pace. Since September, it's possible to see fungus growing measurably on tree trunks, spreading by the day.

How many people predicted the economic meltdown? To any who are skeptical of my assertion, I suggest you open your eyes and take an inventory, whether you live in city, suburb or out in the country. You will find the overwhelming proportion of trees are exhibiting signs of stress. And by the time they exhibit symptoms of decline, according to tree experts, it's too late to reverse. The tiny fibrous roots die, and cannot absorb water.

What is causing this decline? It cannot be any one disease, pest, or fungus, because all the varieties of trees are visibly suffering. Having thought about this since this past July, when the deciduous trees' leaves became scorched and brown, I have come to the conclusion that the prolonged drought, and particularly a lack of snow cover in winter which should blanket and saturate the ground with water, must be responsible. Of course, air pollution doesn't help either, and there are opportunistic parasites and invasive species. But the underlying cause they have in common must be the global warming which has led to a severe, long-term attendant dryness.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the inevitable consequences to accepting this premise, very few people seem willing to even ponder the dimensions of a complete loss of trees, let alone prepare. Wildfires, loss of habitat for all dependent critters and plant species, downed power lines with extended outages, crushed homes and commercial buildings and blocked roads - it seems no one will take notice until these events come to pass.

Implicit as well is that the loss of trees will lead to feedback loops, making the climate ever hotter and even drier. Forget golf courses, and long showers and swimming pools, I'm afraid we will be fortunate to have a cup of water with which to brush our teeth.

I've tried to communicate my concerns with various environmental groups and even they are in denial (or else, quite likely, they think I'm a kook!). I suppose by their way of thinking, who would contribute funding to a conservation society whose mandate is to plants trees if they admit to their constituents we may well be in for desertification and the trees cannot thrive? Which employee is going to keep their job at an organization that sponsors fostering habitat for birds if they announce that pretty soon, there will be no habitat?

Everywhere I go, the pine trees that aren't already bare are losing needles and bursting with cones, a desperate effort to reproduce before demise. I hoped that with the advent of winter, the woods would look naturally leafless and I could forget about the tragic loss of majestic trees, and all the life that depends upon them, at least until next spring when so many don't leaf out at all. Instead, with the dropping of leaf cover that revealed the inner woods, it became even more evident that the deciduous trees are losing limbs and bark as they rot from the inside out, if they're not already toppled over.

It dismays me that so few people will even acknowledge what is before their eyes. I wrote to two local newspapers about the issue - they didn't even run them as letters to the editor. I believe if the scientific facts were made available (presuming they exist - I can find very few studies), the general citizenry would be far more receptive to fundamental change in politics as usual. If there is any hope of diverting a complete loss of biodiversity, and human civilization, we really have to stop kidding ourselves about the consequences of inaction. It's too bad that it looks like people will not pay attention to this until literally, a tree falls on their house.

There is a fact sheet about trees available from, "Tree decline in New Jersey Landscapes". The article refers to cultivated specimen trees - but the facts about senescence apply to the trees in wild forests as well. The article is worth reading in its entirety, but the very last paragraph, in its subdued, academic way, speaks volumes:

"Treatment, tailored to the specific tree and site, may improve the appearance of the declining tree and may slow the decline, but it must be recognized that '...declining trees...have a limited ability to respond to our definition, declining trees are senescent (deteriorating prior to death) and the chances for survival, even with the most appropriate treatments, must be considered problematic.'"

I love that "problematic."

Gail Zawacki

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